Prada Sashays Online, but No E-Commerce, Please

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Italian designer Prada SA has taken customer pampering to a new level with the Friday's opening of a 23,000-square-foot wired next-generation store in New York's fashionable SoHo district.


Among the attractions: Seemingly magic mirrors relay images in delayed motion using video technology. When a shopper turns quickly, for instance, the mirror image is replayed in slow motion so she can get a better look at how the garment flows or a clearer idea of how it looks from the back.


The dressing-room glass doors are made of a semi-transparent liquid crystal display material. The doors turn opaque at the press of a button once inside.


Also, staff members have database-linked hand-helds to read off ID tags on clothes for size availability. By mid-January, the store will offer shoppers the ability to record what they tried on in the store on Prada.com.


Building databases of in-store shoppers and storing that information online for later use by customers and sales associates is at the core of this effort.


"It's the idea of creating commerce capabilities on the Web without e-commerce," said Markus Schaefer, project leader of AMO, the Rotterdam, Netherlands-based architects and strategists on the new Prada store concept.


There are two pieces to Milan-based Prada's online strategy. One is to use Internet technology to track inventory and see what is in stock. The other is to let consumers access data on the Prada site and also communicate with their sales associates.


Underpinning the Web effort is a customer card. A history of what the shoppers try on in the store will be housed online in a Web closet. The personal account can be accessed through user name and password identification.


"The Web site is a tool for Prada to develop loyal customers and have both an economic and a brand value, because for Prada it's not only who buys the clothes, but wears the clothes," said Bruce Eckfeldt, engagement manager at New York-based IconNicholson, which designed the technology for Prada.


This handholding, an essential of the luxury goods business, continues online as well. Registered shoppers can contact their store sales associate through the Prada site. Working like a message board, Prada associates -- 80 in the SoHo store -- will respond to queries in a few hours.


"Their customers are more used to being courted and treated well. The Web is more about self-service," said Tom Nicholson, chief creative officer of New York-based IconMedialab, parent of IconNicholson.


The SoHo shop will be the first of the next-generation stores. A similar one in Los Angeles is expected to open in early 2003. Tokyo and San Francisco will follow.


"We call it a laboratory," Schaefer said. "The entire idea is that the store is a laboratory."


Eckfeldt said that the Prada site eventually will boast videos of Prada's participation in fashion shows and behind-the-scenes material. But e-commerce was not on the immediate horizon for the luxury brand.


"It gets into the way of exclusivity - everything's available on the Internet," Eckfeldt said. "Also, it's missing the personal touch [of the in-store experience]. The Web has the knack of reducing everything to this Web server in Wisconsin."


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